After Iran’s missile attack

The New York Times | : What war does — and doesn’t — look like.

Last spring, a former Pentagon official named Ilan Goldenberg wrote an article for Foreign Affairs called “What a War with Iran Would Look Like.” It included:

Between the United States and Iran there is a distinct potential for misunderstanding, not least when both actors are making decisions under time pressure, on the basis of uncertain information, and in a climate of deep mutual distrust. Iran may mistake a one-off strike by the United States as the beginning of a significant military campaign that requires an immediate and harsh response. The danger that the United States will send confusing signals to the Iranians is especially high given Trump’s tendency to go off on Twitter …

So far — in the hours after Iran’s retaliatory attack on two bases in Iraq that house American troops — this kind of vicious cycle does not look immediately likely. The attacks may not have killed any Americans, and Iran’s foreign minister signaled that the attacks “concluded” Iran’s response to the killing of its top general, Qassim Suleimani.

That would be very good news. As The Dispatch’s David French writes: “If this is Iran’s retaliation, and there are no U.S. casualties, then this is a good time to stop and wait. We shouldn’t feel like we have to have the last word. If we take out Suleimani, and they respond with an ineffective missile attack, then that’s a positive result.”

But it’s also not the end of this story. “This is the first round of what is going to be long, ugly & unpredictable,” Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution wrote. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said today that his country would ultimately avenge Suleimani’s death by driving all United States forces out of the Middle East.

Goldenberg, speaking last night to Vox’s Jen Kirby, said that the missile attacks are “not necessarily the entire Iranian response.” He added:

My sense is that Iran needed to do something quickly, something symbolically, something that was public given how public the killing of Soleimani was. … But Iran didn’t want to trigger an all-out war.

This Iranian attack is bold. It’s major. It’s significant. But it stops short of killing a large number of Americans. Then the Iranians, on their own state television, they’re saying things like 30 Americans were killed and that Iranian planes are flying into Iraqi territory. They’re saying all kinds of crazy things, which is really for their own domestic audience.

So the reality is Iran found a way to, at least for the moment, respond relatively proportionally. … I think Iran will look to do other things over time, just maybe not as public. I still think we need to be worried about things like cyberattacks, terrorist attacks, targeting American embassies, assassination attempts on American officials. I think all those things are entirely on the table for potentially years, frankly, in retaliation.